Recently I saw a excellent TV documentary about the now German Island of Helgoland with a portrait of Franz Schensky, the famous Helgolander photographer (1871 – 1957) enters the photographic stage again after fifty years (2007, the 50th anniversary of his death). The outstanding photographer of the past century was one of the internationally important black and white photographers and pioneers of the time. With his artistic pictorial documents, an extraordinary technique and an intuitive view for the right moment, he presented the viewer with the element “lake” and his “island” in a suggestive way, which made Helgoland world-famous.
However, Schensky’s photographic thinking did not only manifest itself in the recording of the outstanding or unusual, but he also used the camera to relate reality, events and facts to what he experienced and remembered. His photographs are confirmation and questioning at the same time, have autobiographical references and allow to reconstruct the history of the island; from the first picture of the handover ceremony of the island from England to the German Empire (1890) up to the photos of the bombed Oberland by British and American air raids during World War II and the beginning reconstruction of Helgoland (1952) form these unique photographs.
I learnt a lot about the island, which I never visited (and I am German) but would really love to do so one day. Then I remembered a conversation I had with a collector of Heligoland revenues and his brother has a super rare Heligoland passport which he allowed me to display here.
For your clarification, nowadays the island is German and is called HELGOLAND, but the island was British from 1807 to 1890 and was called HELIGOLAND. Until 1714 ownership switched several times between Denmark and the Duchy of Schleswig, with one period of control by Hamburg. In August 1714, it was captured by Denmark, and it remained Danish until 1807.
On 11 September 1807, during the Napoleonic Wars, HMS Carrier brought to the Admiralty the dispatches from Admiral Thomas Macnamara Russell announcing Heligoland’s capitulation to the British. Heligoland became a center of smuggling and espionage against Napoleon. Denmark then ceded Heligoland to George III of the United Kingdom by the Treaty of Kiel (14 January 1814). Thousands of Germans came to Britain and joined the King’s German Legion via Heligoland.
The British annexation of Heligoland was ratified by the Treaty of Paris signed on 30 May 1814, as part of a number of territorial reallocation’s following on the abdication of Napoleon as Emperor of the French.
The prime reason at the time for Britain’s retention of a small and seemingly worthless acquisition was to restrict any future French naval aggression against the Scandinavian or German states. In the event no effort was made during the period of British administration to make use of the islands for naval purposes, partly for financial reasons but principally because the Royal Navy considered Heligoland to be too exposed as a forward base.
In 1826, Heligoland became a seaside spa and soon it turned into a popular tourist resort for the European upper-class. The island attracted artists and writers, especially from Germany and Austria who apparently enjoyed the comparatively liberal atmosphere, including Heinrich Heine and August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben. More vitally it was a refuge for revolutionaries of the 1830s and the 1848 German revolution.
Britain gave up the islands to Germany in 1890 in the Heligoland–Zanzibar Treaty. The newly unified Germany was concerned about a foreign power controlling land from which it could command the western entrance to the militarily-important Kiel Canal, then under construction, and other naval installations in the area, and traded for it. A “grandfathering“/optant approach prevented the Heligolanders (as they were named in the British measures) from forfeiting advantages because of this imposed change of status.
Under the German Empire, the islands became a major naval base, and during the First World War the civilian population was evacuated to the mainland. The first naval engagement of the war, the Battle of Heligoland Bight, was fought nearby in the first month of the war. The islanders returned in 1918, but during the Nazi era the naval base was reactivated. Lager Helgoland, the Nazi labour camp on Alderney, was named after the island.
The area was the setting of the aerial Battle of the Heligoland Bight in 1939, a result of British bombing attempts on German Navy vessels in that area. The area’s waters were frequently mined by British aircraft.
Heligoland also had military function as a sea fortress in Second World War. Completed and ready for use were the submarine bunker North sea III, the coastal artillery, an air-raid shelter system with extensive bunker tunnels and the airfield with the air force – Jagdstaffel Helgoland (April to October 1943). Forced labour of, among others, citizens of the Soviet Union was used during the construction of military installations during World War II.
On 3 December 1939, Heligoland was bombed by the Allies for the first time. The attack, by twenty four Wellington bombers of RAF Squadrons 38, 115 and 149, failed to destroy its target of German warships at anchor.
Shortly before the war ended in 1945, Georg Braun and Erich Friedrichs succeeded in forming a resistance group. However, shortly before they were to execute the plans, they were betrayed by two members of the group. About twenty men were arrested on 18 April 1945; fourteen of them were transported to Cuxhaven. After a short trial, five resisters were executed by firing squad at Cuxhaven-Sahlenburg on 21 April 1945.
With two waves of attacks on 18 and 19 April 1945, 1,000 aircraft of the British Royal Air Force dropped about 7,000 bombs. The majority of the population survived in the bomb shelters. 285 people were killed, including many Luftwaffenhelfer and naval auxiliaries. 128 of the casualties were anti-aircraft crew. The bomb attacks rendered the island uninhabitable, and it was evacuated.
From 1945 to 1952 the uninhabited Heligoland islands were used as a bombing range. On 18 April 1947, the Royal Navy detonated 6,700 tonnes of explosives (“Big Bang” or “British Bang”), creating one of the biggest single non-nuclear detonations in history. Though the attack was aimed at the fortifications, the island’s total destruction would have been accepted. The blow shook the main island several miles down to its base, changing its shape (the Mittelland was created).
On 20 December 1950, two students and a professor from Heidelberg – René Leudesdorff, Georg von Hatzfeld and Hubertus zu Löwenstein – occupied the off-limits island and raised various German, European and local flags. The students were arrested by the British military and brought back to the mainland. The event started a movement to restore the islands to Germany, which gained the support of the German parliament. On 1 March 1952, Heligoland was returned to German control, and the former inhabitants were allowed to return. The first of March is an official holiday on the island. The German authorities had to clear a huge amount of undetonated ammunition, landscape the main island, and rebuild the houses before it could be resettled.
I was in contact with the Helgoland museum, asking if they have passports in their archive – but they have not. They told me since 1890 passports were never issued at the island but on the mainland. I never saw any passport with e.g. place of birth: Helgoland. There is a excellent German online source called “HELGOLAND-GENEALOGY”, established by Captain Erich Nummel-Krüss (probably related to German writer James Krüss). The site includes a death register of its citizens from 1764-1822, which might be a important source for your Genealogy research.
However, If you come along a passport issued at Helgoland / Heligoland or a German passport with birth place Helgoland, then please contact me!
FAQ Passport History
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1. What are the earliest known examples of passports, and how have they evolved?
The word "passport" came up only in the mid 15th Century. Before that, such documents were safe conducts, recommendations or protection letters. On a practical aspect, the earliest passport I have seen was from the mid 16th Century. Read more...
2. Are there any notable historical figures or personalities whose passports are highly sought after by collectors?
Every collector is doing well to define his collection focus, and yes, there are collectors looking for Celebrity passports and travel documents of historical figures like Winston Churchill, Brothers Grimm, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Read more...
3. How did passport designs and security features change throughout different periods in history, and what impact did these changes have on forgery prevention?
"Passports" before the 18th Century had a pure functional character. Security features were, in the best case, a watermark and a wax seal. Forgery, back then, was not an issue like it is nowadays. Only from the 1980s on, security features became a thing. A state-of-the-art passport nowadays has dozens of security features - visible and invisible. Some are known only by the security document printer itself. Read more...
4. What are some of the rarest and most valuable historical passports that have ever been sold or auctioned?
Lou Gehrig, Victor Tsoi, Marilyn Monroe, James Joyce, and Albert Einstein when it comes to the most expensive ones. Read more...
5. How do diplomatic passports differ from regular passports, and what makes them significant to collectors?
Such documents were often held by officials in high ranks, like ambassadors, consuls or special envoys. Furthermore, these travel documents are often frequently traveled. Hence, they hold a tapestry of stamps or visas. Partly from unusual places.
6. Can you provide insights into the stories behind specific historical passports that offer unique insights into past travel and migration trends?
7. What role did passports play during significant historical events, such as wartime travel restrictions or international treaties?
During war, a passport could have been a matter of life or death. Especially, when we are looking into WWII and the Holocaust. And yes, during that time, passports and similar documents were often forged to escape and save lives. Example...
8. How has the emergence of digital passports and biometric identification impacted the world of passport collecting?
Current modern passports having now often a sparkling, flashy design. This has mainly two reasons. 1. Improved security and 2. Displaying a countries' heritage, icons, and important figures or achievements. I can fully understand that those modern documents are wanted, especially by younger collectors.
9. Are there any specialized collections of passports, such as those from a specific country, era, or distinguished individuals?
Yes, the University of Western Sidney Library has e.g. a passport collection of the former prime minister Hon Edward Gough Whitlam and his wife Margaret. They are all diplomatic passports and I had the pleasure to apprise them. I hold e.g. a collection of almost all types of the German Empire passports (only 2 types are still missing). Also, my East German passport collection is quite extensive with pretty rare passport types.
10. Where can passport collectors find reliable resources and reputable sellers to expand their collection and learn more about passport history?
A good start is eBay, Delcampe, flea markets, garage or estate sales. The more significant travel documents you probably find at the classic auction houses. Sometimes I also offer documents from my archive/collection. See offers... As you are already here, you surely found a great source on the topic 😉
11. Is vintage passport collecting legal? What are the regulations and considerations collectors should know when acquiring historical passports?
First, it's important to stress that each country has its own laws when it comes to passports. Collecting old vintage passports for historical or educational reasons is safe and legal, or at least tolerated. More details on the legal aspects are here...
Does this article spark your curiosity about passport collecting and the history of passports? With this valuable information, you have a good basis to start your own passport collection.
Question? Contact me...